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PARIS -- In 1996 Andre Leon Talley, then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and famously often the only black man in the front row of fashion shows, organized a shoot for the magazine titled Scarlett 'n the Hood that reimagined Gone With the Wind with the races reversed. Naomi Campbell, then one of the few black supermodels, played Scarlett; John Galliano, then at Givenchy, played a maid.

"We wanted to temporarily turn the pages of history around," Talley told The New York Times afterward. On Jan. 23 in Paris, not quite 23 years later, Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative director of Valentino, echoed his words.

"When it started, couture was made for white women," Piccioli said, standing before a mood board pinned with photographs of versions of the black Madonna, works by artist Kerry James Marshall and the famous 1948 Cecil Beaton shoot for Vogue with nine white models in Charles James couture gowns, surrounded by photos from Ebony and Franca Sozzani's 2008 Black Issue of Italian Vogue.

"What if they had been in there?" he went on, gesturing to the Ebony women and Beaton. "To me couture is about dream and fantasy and the expression of individuality, and that means diversity. It's not about a political message you put on a T-shirt, and it's not about street wear or sportswear. It's about how you look at the world."

Then Piccioli showed everyone how to look. He did it with his now-signature combination of lavish ease and a garden of painterly shades; his ability to toss a cropped neon yellow cashmere cape atop a blush vest and nude trousers so its train trailed on the floor just so. He did it with elaborate embroideries in lace and sequins worn with the insouciance of a T-shirt, and filmy floral organzas sliced up the sides to reveal lace bodysuits and pants underneath (complete with pockets).

MADE A STATEMENT

And he did it with 65 models, 45 of whom were black, all in outfits christened by the women who worked on them. In an industry that has lately made real strides toward acknowledging and rethinking its own past failings in regards to the definition of beauty, it made a statement that was impossible to ignore.

"As a designer, I have a voice," Piccioli said. "Hopefully a loud one. I want to use it."

He wasn't the only one. Couture may be an elite sector of expensive clothes for the very few, but its reach goes far beyond its customer base, and three weeks ago designers were using it to get a variety of messages out.

This is a time when people are speaking up all over. To think that fashion, designed to reflect the moment, should sit it out is deluded. But it is not always an easy fit.

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf, for example, decided to make a double entendre of the whole idea (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). They appliqued coffee-cup one-liners onto candy-colored ruffled mille-feuilles made from a total of 8 kilometers of tulle to suggest that no matter how sweet a woman looked, it was time to wake up to her reality.

"I'm not shy -- I just don't like you," read the big block letters on one enormous white baby-doll gown. "Sorry I'm late -- I didn't want to come," went the words on another. "Get Mean" appeared on a pink heart amid valentine red; and "Give a Damn" appeared on an angelic nightie.

It was catchy, as their fashion jokes usually are, if not particularly subtle, unlike Maria Grazia Chiuri's feminist thematics at Dior, expressed in the all-female acrobatic troupe Mimbre.

REACHING EVEN HIGHER

The performers stacked themselves into various newfangled kinds of human pyramids under the big top built in the gardens of the Rodin Museum, balanced on each other's shoulders, reaching ever higher. Beneath them came models in circus-inspired crystal-spangled bloomers and red and black polka-dot corset playsuits; harlequin ruffs and beaded bareback rider dresses.

If the clothes ultimately didn't seem to have much to do with the show of female power, except maybe for a troika of pleated Jean Harlow lame gowns -- the sort that used to make viewers go weak at the knees -- the fact that this time around her feminism was implied rather than advertised on T-shirts and posters was a step forward. Besides, the ringmaster was a woman: in slick cut tails and a ruffled sheer white blouse. So was the lion tamer. Chiuri made her point.

As did John Galliano at Maison Margiela Artisanal, with his chaotic melange of graffiti and jacquard and computer-generated prints and metallic threads and feathers and tweed and satin and leather and felted flowers and faux fur, all of it chopped and changed and morphed together into not entirely identifiable garments and shown on an interchangeable array of male and female models.

We are in a situation, he said in a podcast, of "overconsumption, oversaturation, overstimulation, overindulgence." You know: the social media sickness -- so he embraced it. Then he pared it all down.

TREATISE ON TECHNOLOGY

It's one way to propose a treatise on technology. Iris van Herpen, in her lovely multilayered organza examination of man and machine and the coming Singularity, offered another. They were looking forward, anyway, as was Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, who is proving adept at taking the classic tropes of couture -- this time the whole idea of black tie -- and subverting them.

So black latex leggings were worn instead of pants under exactingly cut jackets with a single knife-sharp white lapel and blood-red second-skin latex undershirts below black lace halter-neck ballgown.

There were black guipure bodysuits peeking through white guipure baby-doll dresses; steroid-fueled bows sprouting backpacks at the core; and egg-yolk-yellow leggings oozing out beneath delicate white flowered evening skirts.

They dared you to re-examine old value systems, and in doing so had an air of currency absent from the high-low taffeta and tulle confections at Giambattista Valli, the cosmic floral fantasies at Schiaparelli and the 86 meditations on red and blue at Armani Prive(OK, plus a little silver and black), where waiting for another color was like waiting for Godot.

They doth protest not at all. Nor did the Chanel garden constructed in the Grand Palais with expansive grass, palm and orange trees, rose bushes (and a swimming pool), a delightful frame for the long, lean silhouettes in springtime pastels; garden party frocks in organza with feathered blooms; and satin pouf skirts and boucle bolero tops folded and flipped inside out. But such escapism is not really enough anymore. It's an old story.

BRING COUTURE BACK

Still, none of them had the last word. That belonged to Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, whose debut couture was the last major show of the season. Once upon a time Balmain was a stalwart name on the schedule, but it closed its atelier in 2002 when Oscar de la Renta left. This year Rousteing decided it was time to bring couture back, and there was some anticipation about what that could mean.

Answer: bulbous leather "pearls" that encircled a model's thighs and shoulders. Jutting hip buttresses that stuck out from the side under enormous pink bows. Shredded "denim" dangling silver fringe and embroidered with crystals and pearls (there were more than 1 million pieces of Swarovski decoration used in all). Pastel prints in faded graffiti swirls pleated into face-obscuring fans.

A simple long white coat. Two topless models, one in a frilled ball skirt, one in white sweats, with a giant silver belt. An effort to, seemingly, go through the motions of the old couture -- in a written note, Rousteing said he had "pored through the house's archives" -- without trying to synthesize the point of the new.

He said in his note that doing the collection had allowed him "the immense luxury of stepping back" from the pressures of the regular grind; that he and his team learned new techniques and innovations they can apply in the rest of their year. Fair enough. But what he didn't say -- and this is the problem -- was what it was supposed to mean for the women who would buy it, or even look at it.

As a result, instead of a soapbox, it felt like an echo chamber.

High Profile on 02/10/2019

Print Headline: Couture is not just clothes, but what we perceive

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